Nail biting is a common habit, often triggered by stress, anxiety or simply boredom. But it's not always harmless.
While biting your nails can spread germs and increase your risk of getting sick, in most cases, it won't cause long-term damage. But in severe cases, nail biting can turn into a chronic condition that causes extensive damage to nail beds and the surrounding tissue, known as onychophagia.
“Like any repetitive behavior, repetitive nail biting can become somewhat automatic, such that people engage in this behavior without recognizing that they are doing it,” said double-board certified dermatologist and psychiatrist Evan Rieder. “When people are unaware, they may bite in a trance state and only come back to reality after having done damage.”
Studies show that nail biting is not always an isolated problem, and sometimes suggests an underlying issue.
Someone who is often anxious or stressed may bite his or her nails as a coping mechanism, explained psychotherapist Dayna Pizzigoni.
“Nail biting, no matter the intensity, in men and women, is a response to anxiety and stress in life,” she said. “These are not bad feelings; they are just signals that something in life needs our attention."
Chronic nail biters could also experience headaches, halitosis, mouth infection and diarrhea as a result of their not-so-sanitary habit, according to board-certified behavioral and cognitive therapist Paul DePompo, Psy.D. And if cuticles are damaged, people can also experience nail infections and inflammation, he said.
Ready to stop biting your nails? Here's what you should do.
How to stop biting your nails
1. Recognize your stressors
Experts agree that the first step nail-biters should take is to identify their stressors.
“I bit my nails as a young girl and noticed it would peak back into my life during intense times in graduate school,” Pizzigoni said. “I could notice it and recognize the cue that I needed to pause my work and check in with myself.”
2. Switch out the habit
DePompo suggested swapping out nail biting for another behavior that can help you de-stress.
“Start tracking where and when you are nail biting and have a transitional object — like a stress ball or a textured play toy — to hold and rub instead,” he says. “Use it as a transitional coping mechanism.”
Pizzigoni suggested nail-biters consider journaling or going for a walk in times of high stress.
3. Try topical products
While experts are wary of the effectiveness of topical products such as foul-flavored nail polish, they say there isn’t any real harm in trying them.
DePompo said bad-tasting nail polishes may work, while Rieder said that there are case reports of applying neem oil (a vegetable oil with a bitter taste) on cuticles being effective.
But experts say these products alone probably won't be enough to kick the habit.
“The main focus to stop biting your nails should be how to take care of your stress and anxiety — to give yourself some TLC,” Pizzigoni said. [It’s] not to punish yourself for a difficult habit to break.”
4. Consult a therapist
Because nail biting may be a sign of deeper issues, all three experts suggested seeking a professional who can help work through those problems and set up an action plan.
“I have supported people before for whom nail biting was part of self-harm for them, so it is important people know that although it can be a small, old habit, it can also be a serious cue from your mind and body to get support,” Pizzigoni said.